Like an unwelcome guest, winter came too early and stayed far too long, bringing its harsh blizzards and endless frost to his land. Through howling winds and forests of trees overburdened with snow, his people fled to relatives in the city, seeking warmth and food and ultimately finding little of both.
Sickness festered and spread in the overcrowded conditions taking young and old alike. The knights and the woodsmen who went out to seek firewood and game were the first to succumb and they in turn spread it to the outer villages where even the animals fell sick, whole herds destroyed in a fortnight. Their stores dwindled, forcing him to withdraw the patrols stationed at the border of Camelot, much to the opposition of his council.
The first signs of spring were greeted with a fervent relief until this latest crisis. Bayard crouched in the field, running a hand over the diseased crop. The voices of the distressed lords buzzed around him but he ignored their words. Bayard rose stiffly to his feet; he was still recovering from his own bout of sickness. Raising a hand to block out the sun he gazed into the distance, surveying the damage: the entire field would have to be burned. His horse nickered impatiently somewhere behind him. Turning, he saw the owner of the field standing some ways off, a haunted expression on his face.
This was the sixth such field they had visited in four days, all showing the same wilted decay. Some whispered that the land was cursed. He believed no such nonsense but after the harsh winter, the sickness and now this blight, the rumors were hard to dispel. A series of disastrous events, each one hitting before they could recover from the last, left little choice for their future now. Turning, he shared a look with Lord Aedilfrid, who nodded gravely.
Lord Aedilfrid, anticipating his decision, had already sent out messages to the lords of the outer estates. They gathered at the castle along with his council to discuss the need for more soldiers and the possibility of famine. Upon his return, Bayard gathered them in the great hall and with very little preamble, boldly announced his decision in favor of the treaty. After a moment of stunned silence, the dissension arose immediately. The treachery of Camelot was a common theme. The war against Camelot was an old one and distaste for the kingdom and its ruler ran deep.
Lord Cearl‘s voice rose above all the others. He had lost two sons in the last skirmish with Camelot; both were brave and skilled young men and their level-headed council was sorely missed in these trouble times. A lifetime ago, Cearl was already a blooded warrior when Uther was only a beardless pup, barely able to hold up his broadsword, and he held little respect for the now king. Any truce stunk of betrayal to him.
Bayard remained silent, allowing each of the Lords, the councilmen and even a few of the knights to voice their opinions. Many of his knights are too young, replacing fathers and brothers killed in battle or taken by the past winter. They were weaned on tales of past campaigns against Camelot and now saw the chance for their own glory being snatched away. The older lords suffered too many insults and losses, both to their honor and of their lands. Only Lord Swidhelm, his head general, and Aedilfrid, his oldest companion, said nothing. They realized the desperation of the situation outweighed whatever personal feelings they had on the matter.
Cearl was almost purple in his vexation - the scar that ran from his left temple to his chin a stark white - banging against the council table to punctuate each of his statements. Several of the lords were nodding along and a scattering of knights, rough hands gripping their sword-hilts and flushed faces conveying their resentment, were muttering encouragement. Soon there would be plans for another attack on Camelot if he let this continue.
All the previous discussions regarding peace with Camelot had been hampered by too much anger and bitterness, ending before any clear resolutions could be reached. This would be the last discourse on the matter; they had already wasted too much time and now the situation was exceedingly dire.
“Enough!” His voice boomed across the hall. Speechless, their eyes turned to him, some startled, some guilty and some still obstinate. He stood at the end of the table and stared each one down.
“It seems we are once again at an impasse. However, the gravity of our situation has proved this treaty to be the only recourse.” Bayard raised a hand to silence the beginning objections. “The past winter has left our stores low and the sickness has left our army at half strength. We can neither feed nor properly man any force to send against Camelot. And now our fields have been taken by blight.” He can hear the desperation of the last few months sneaking into his voice and no doubt on his face as he leans forward, catching their eyes. “What choice would you have me make?”
“Fight!” someone yells from the back. “Every year Camelot harasses our borders and now you would have us surrender to them?”
It was Sir Osric, his tone reeking of insolence and his mulish expression speaking more strongly of a refusal to back down. His feelings were understandable; much of his father’s lands were raided or destroyed during skirmishes with Camelot but a spark of true anger breaks through the weariness Bayard had been suffering all morning.
“You will not take that tone with me, boy! My decisions are not yours to question.”
Sir Oswyn pulls his brother back with a calming hand on his arm. Shamed, Osric bows slightly in apology. Rubbing a tired hand over his face, Bayard can still smell the ashes of that man’s field. Can they not see there is no choice, he thinks sadly.
“Pendragon is quick to anger and too slow to trust. How can we be certain that this is not some ruse to ensnare us?” Lord Cynefrid spoke calmly, no doubt drawing on his knowledge of the King acquired from his time spent as a prisoner of war. “Pendragon will not stop until he crushes all of Albion under his boot heel.” There were several calls of agreement.
“If we were to fight Camelot now, we would most surely lose.” Swidhelm’s voice is low, but he commanded too much respect to be ignored.
Cearl straightens, glaring at Swidhelm’s back. “Then we will die with honor, not kneeling at Uther’s feet like cowards.” His face was twisted in anger but his eyes held pain.
“No,” Bayard said sharply. “The decision is made. Mercia will not suffer for pride, Lord Cearl.” The steel in his voice and the hand on the hilt of his sword reminds them that for all the freedom he allows them to voice their disagreement, he is still their ruler. The decision is, and always was, his. “We ride to Camelot in a fortnight. Make preparations.”
Having been spared the harshness of Mercia’s winter, the lands of Camelot are green and fertile; its people, if not entirely pleased to see them, seem healthy and judging by the force Uther sent to meet them, nor is his army lacking. The signs of prosperity are a constant irritant to Bayard.
Uther is neither gracious nor conciliatory, nor does Bayard expect it. The smug hostility barely masked in his welcoming speech reveals the Uther he remembers: brash and cunning with a smirk that begged for a challenge. The years of war between their two lands have left Bayard with little knowledge of the King besides his reputation for ruthlessness and his hatred of magic.
The loss of a loved one is inevitable, especially in these times. One mourned and one moved on but Uther turned the death of his wife in childbirth into a crusade against magic. It was nonsensical. Bayard cared little for magic but it had its uses occasionally and an angry warlock was not to be trifled with. Uther’s hatred bordered on fanaticism. A king could be uncompromising on certain matters but a fanatic was a rabid dog that would soon turn on everyone around it.
The son, however, was proving to be different. Bayard’s previous knowledge of the prince is even less than the father and revolved mainly around his fighting ability. Upon their first meeting, he seems arrogant and too full of the bravado. Yet, his comments during the negotiations, though few, show wisdom beyond his years and careful consideration of the matter from both sides. His training is rigorous and thorough and that even knights much older follow his instructions without the slightest hint of mockery reflects well on him. And then there is the matter of his constant shadow, a tall dark haired youth trailing behind him with armor or food or simply laughing and talking excitedly. Their relationship seems to be so commonplace that few comment on the youth’s occasional lack of deference or how someone of common birth with little recommendation has an obvious hold over the prince.
Later during one of the many feasts, Bayard watches them from across the food-laden table. The prince’s face is flushed with laughter. Gone is the stiff man Bayard met in council, here he is boyish and mischievous, gesturing widely with his goblet; the gangly servant hovers at his shoulder, failing to fill the goblet in his amusement over whatever they are whispering to each other. With this boy, he sees something other than the cold, haughty son of Uther Pendragon. He sees a boy still growing into a man, one that reminds Bayard too much of his own son Beroun, lost two seasons ago to Camelot.
He turns away almost in guilt to regard the father, smirking over the rim of his drink. There is no love for Uther or his kingdom in Mercia, but Bayard would rather face them across the table as an equal than on his knees as a conquered vassal. What the Pendragons have done cannot afford to be forgotten, no matter what treaty is signed.
The sound of mirth draws his gaze back to the prince. Dark eyes dancing, Sir Eadwyn launches into a story that sends all the young knights into raucous laughter, the Prince clapping him on the back. Looking at them, almost fully at ease in each other’s presence, one could hardly believe them enemies save for the contrast of Mercian blue and the Pendragon red. The boy stands there engrossed while the other servants bustle about with their jobs.
The boy, lacking the fear or the anger of the other servants, proves to be unusually talkative with the Mercian delegation, especially Sir Eadwyn, who has been a surprising source of intelligence. Eadwyn has proved talented at waylaying any distrust or misgivings with his easy smile and affable personality, even managing an invitation to train with the prince and his knights the past two mornings. He is a good fighter, hardly one of Bayard’s best though truly if the boy paid half as much attention to his sword work as he did to court gossip, he would be a knight to rival the younger Pendragon.
Eadwyn reports that the boy’s name is Merlin, that he calls the Prince by his given name and is hopeless both on the combat field and at his duties but not only does the Prince tolerate him, there seems to be no one closer to him. Hidden in the boy’s endless chatter and insolent amusement is genuine respect and admiration for the prince, all the more interesting because he is new to Camelot. And from what Bayard has observed, he is not the only one who feels that way about the prince.
Despite the treaty, Bayard had little hope of a change in Uther but the reality of Camelot does not match the stories told in Mercia and the half-remembered memories from more peaceful times. If it is possible the prince is not the impudent brat he thought, then maybe the father deserves a second look to see what kind of king he truly is. Perhaps in time past hurts though not forgotten, could be healed. With that final thought, Bayard makes his excuses and retires for the night. The negations have gone well but the moment of truth will come tomorrow when they formally announce the peace treaty.
For all the agonizing he did over the wording, when the time arrives the speech comes easily to Bayard. He glances at his knights; truly he speaks more to them than to Camelot, wants to convince them that this peace is possible. He knows a few are beginning to see it by the way they have begun treating the knights of Camelot differently. He never thought he would see peace again in his lifetime and now that he has had a taste, he feels less doubt over his actions. Holding his goblet high, he nods to Uther.
The boy’s entrance is so surprising that at first Bayard fails to grasp what he is accusing. Gone is the affable smile, in its place is anger and a little bit of fear directed at Bayard. Behind him, the Mercian knights are on their feet, shouting angrily.
Poisoned, he thinks in shock. What trickery is this? He defended Uther, shouldered the risk and the responsibility to come here, believing Uther was an honorable man.
The boy meets his eyes with more bravery than Bayard expects, batting away the prince’s hands before drinking from the chalice. Whatever this is, the boy clearly believes his charges. Cynefrid’s words echo nastily in Bayard’s head, taunting him. Doubt and unease begin to churn in his gut. But the boy is fine. Bayard breathes a sign of relief; this was a joke in poor taste.
Bayard lowers his sword, beginning to sheath it when the boy starts to choke and falls. The hall erupts into a flurry of movement—Uther yelling, the clatter of armor, the hiss of blades being drawn. Bayard redraws his sword. The Prince is immediately at his servant’s side, concern written on his face. Surprisingly, he lifts and carries the boy from the room himself.
At Uther’s order, guards surround them. Bayard understands the looks on the faces of his knights, even young Eadwyn. No one desires to be taken prisoner and languish in Camelot’s dungeon, to be tortured and executed. Even being outnumbered has not loosened the grips on their sword-hilts or dimmed their fervor to avenge the slight against Mercia.
“Bayard, lower your weapons or be slaughtered where you stand.” Uther face hardens. His voice is like a blade cutting through the chaos.
Fury washes through him at whatever game Camelot is playing. Alone, Bayard wouldn’t have hesitated before launching himself at the man. If his last act was burying his sword in the treacherous bastard’s heart then he would consider it an honorable death. But he feels the tension of the knights behind him, hears their harsh breathing. His knights would follow him to the gates of hell but some are little more than boys, boys he trained and he cannot watch them killed for his folly.
Bayard steels himself before lowering his sword; he will not give Uther the satisfaction of taking them down like animals. Without looking he knows his men have done the same, can sense the desolation radiating from them.
“You can try to keep us here, Uther, but this will mean war. Mercia will not let this stand.”
With pride, they allow the guards to lead them away.
Their cell is cold and damp, barely large enough for all of them to move around freely. Smoothing down his tunic, Bayard turns away from studying their prison to regard his knights.
“Though it pains me, I need to ask this.” He pauses. He knows there was discontent over his decision but he doesn’t want to believe that any one of them is capable of this. “If anything is known about the poison, I will hear it now.”
A chorus of adamant ‘No, my lords’ follows. After examining their faces intently, Bayard sheds all doubt. He is somewhere beyond fury in unknown territory, but on this one thing he can take comfort.
“Cynefrid was right. Uther has lured us here to imprison us and attack Mercia.” Oswyn had said little during the trip, even to his fellow Mercians. Now as he crouched against the dank stone tugging a hand through his russet hair, he spoke with weariness, not anger.
“You think the Prince sacrificed his own servant?” Eadwyn asks, shocked. He is young with little experience of war, and a part of him admires the prince.
“I think the Pendragons will stop at nothing.” Oswyn is not as adamant in his dislike of Camelot as his brother but neither does he trust them. He knows his lands will be the first under attack.
Bayard thinks of the naked emotion on the prince’s face, the care he took lifting his servant. “No. If this was a plot, I do not think the Prince was aware of it.” Uther, however, was another matter. A lifetime ago, Lord Cearl held a sword to Uther’s throat and spared him. In return, Uther almost took his head off. He thinks in regret of the dismissal he gave Lord Cearl’s words, of the rest of his council awaiting them in Mercia unaware of a possible invasion.
What have I done? The weight of it almost fells him to his knees. Bayard stumbles into the wall, sliding down to rest on the hard wooden bench, burying his head in his hands. Blessedly, his men leave him be. He’s made mistakes in his life, regrets that keep him up nights but none such as this. The peace was only a fool’s dream. Uther was not to be trusted and Bayard would not soon forget this lesson.
Everything positive he thought of Uther, Camelot or even the prince since coming to this realm is tainted. His men will blame Uther and all of Camelot but not the one who brought them to this city. Ignoring the argument amongst them, he chooses instead to huddle into his cloak, drowning in recriminations.
Sometime later, a commotion from outside wakes Bayard from his fitful sleep. A few of the knights are holding onto the bars, gazing out into the dimly lit hall. He raises himself stiffly, too old for sleeping against cold stone.
“The guards have locked up the Prince.” Eadwyn’s whisper startles him slightly. Anticipating his next question, Eadwyn continues. “The guards say the poison was the work of a witch. Arthur went against the King’s orders to seek a cure for Merlin. He was attacked by some creature.”
Bayard has seen Uther throw his own knights into harms way with little regard or regret, yet his son risks life and limb and now his freedom for a common servant. For a Pendragon it was so utterly ridiculous as to be unbelievable. He has little reason to trust this but perhaps he was not so wrong about his judgment of Arthur.
“My Lord?” Eadwyn’s voice is soft and hesitant. “They say the King will come to free us. What shall we do afterwards?”
Bayard gazed out of his cell at the pacing Prince. A slight of this magnitude cannot be ignored; Uther would have done better to confine them to chambers under guard. He must believe Bayard to be a fool to come to Camelot, outnumbered and far from rescue or escape, and poison the king’s own son before his very eyes.
“My father had a phrase: Not even the gods fight against necessity. For now we need this treaty.” His anger at Camelot would not heal the fields or man his forces. “Fortune favors Camelot but one day that will change and we will no longer need Camelot’s peace.” Bayard spits out the last word in disgust. If this is how Uther treats his allies then his honor is worthless. He will not forget the lesson learned here.
Across from them, Arthur—believing himself unobserved—sheds his regal composure and shakes with emotion. Or one day when Camelot has a better King on her throne, Bayard thinks before retreating back into the darkness.